The road trip I’ll never forget

There’s not many places left in the world where Google Maps appears almost blank other than a few squiggly lines representing some remote mountain roads, but Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern most state in India, is one such place. It is one of the states that encompasses the wild, wild east that most Indians don’t know much about. Even my phone’s location services was a bit confused, constantly flicking between India and China not really sure exactly where I was on this planet.

Although officially part of India since independence, the state is still heavily contested and China claims most of the area as part of ‘Southern Tibet’ on their official national boundaries. The state has been militarised since the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when China captured much of the territory only to retreat back to the original line of control in 1963. Majority of the state’s population consists of Indian military and every town seemed to really be a military base with just some shops and civilians living on the fringes.

However, this remote state is also home to the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world at a town called Tawang, which is a very long road trip towards the Chinese border. During my stay at the hostel in Gangtok, Sikkim, the owner was telling me how incredibly beautiful the place is and for whatever reason the idea stuck in my head that I would make it to that monastery in Tawang somehow.

First I had to get a Protected Area Permit to even get across state borders. There was very little information online, some said I could only get the permit in Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai, others said it was possible to get one in Guwahati the capital of Assam, some said as a solo traveller I couldn’t get one, others said I could but it was a more restricted permit… But whenever I mentioned it to a local in the Northeast they would say, “Don’t worry you will get one!”.

So on my first day in Guwahati I went straight to the Deputy Resident Commissioner Office of Arunachal Pradesh. I was greeted by a very friendly man who sat down with me, asked me some basic questions like why I wanted to go, what I wanted to see and then handed me a form to fill out. I had to pay the 3000rupees or AUD$60 upfront and he said he would be able to get it approved and emailed to me by the end of the day. Much more efficient than I had imagined!

At 5pm that night, true to his word, I had an email with a photo of my official permit attached. I went to my hotel reception and they printed a very dodgy looking copy of the image and I just thought, “I hope this is good enough!”.

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From Guwahati, it was a four hour bus trip to Tezpur, the jumping off point for most trips into Arunachal Pradesh. I stayed at one of the best value and friendliest hotels of my whole Northeastern adventure, Hotel Kaustav, before leaving on the early morning shared jeep to Dirang which I’d booked at the station when I arrived.

I arrived at the depot at 6am as indicated on my ticket and watched as eyes followed me and jaws dropped as I said, “Dirang?”.

“You going to Dirang?!” Absolutely I am.

Of course we didn’t get moving until 7.30am with a full jeep and full luggage rack on top. We stopped at Bhalukpong border town where I had to get out and show my permit. The soldiers were so excited to see a foreigner that they didn’t care that all I had was a rough looking image of what looked like a legit permit and they waved me on with a smile, “Enjoy our state!”.

We hit a dirt, pot-hole filled road winding it’s way into the mountains and we swayed left to right for the next seven hours all the way to Dirang, a small town about half way from Tezpur to Tawang. I found a hotel in the main street called Snow Lion with a very friendly owner and for $25 I got a private room with a giant bed, four thick blankets and dinner.

The next day I continued my journey at 7.30am in another shared jeep heading for Tawang. The winding roads didn’t stop but the views along the way only got better. There was road construction and clearing being done everywhere, but with the skinny mountain roads constantly having land slides full of earth and rock crush them, it seemed like a constant battle with the landscape.

Only a couple of hours into the trip the road got steeper and the air got foggy. I knew we must be getting close to SeLa pass, one of the highest motorable roads in the world at 4170m above sea level. We wound our way slowly, slowly, up and up until we emerged above the cloud and crossed the mountain top. The views were absolutely incredible.

Our driver stopped just down the other side and I got out of the jeep and thought to myself, “I think this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen!”.

Seven hours after leaving Dirang we finally arrived in Tawang, perfectly perched on the edge overlooking a snow-capped valley. I picked a cheap, run-down hotel called Tawang View Hotel with a room that was more like a prison cell, but the view from the balcony was unrivalled and I stayed for two nights.

The monastery was very peaceful and walking around town it was like I had discovered some hidden place at the end of the world. The streets were quiet, most shops weren’t open and I couldn’t even find anywhere to cook me dinner, but looking over the monastery at sunset I didn’t want to be anywhere else but there.

I was running out of time as I had booked a flight back to Jaipur from Guwahati for the 27th February or three days time. So I went to book a direct jeep all the way back to Tezpur and the guy told me there was only one seat left, in the back. I refused to sit for 14 hours squashed in the back of the jeep so I nicely asked if there was another seat I could have. He said, “What seat do you want?”.

“I just want a window seat and not in the back.”

“Okay leave it with me, I’ll get it for you.”

Low and behold the next morning when I turned up at the office at 5.30am he said to me, “I got you the front seat all the way to Tezpur.” I nearly could have hugged him. Not only did I have room to move and keep my backpack with me, I also had prime position for filming with the GoPro. I was the happiest girl alive.

Even with the best seat in the vehicle, it was a long 14 hour trip back and I was extremely glad when we finally arrived back in Tezpur. When I walked into Hotel Kaustav again, the guy at reception said, “Welcome back. You must have been in Tawang.” I must have had that tired and hungry yet extremely satisfied look that everyone has when they return from the most memorable journey to the far east.